Cooperation is human beings' survival skill...



This is only half of the page that I intended to put up. But I was traveling all week, and didn’t have a chance to finish it. Rather than make you wait for the rest, here’s this bit at least!

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Join the conversation! There are now 22 comments on this chapter's page 51. Cooperation and Trust. What are your thoughts?
  1. Gregory Bogosian says

    In computer science they call the problem of cooperation and trust the Byzantine Fault Tolerance problem. Too bad they haven’t solved it yet.

    • The Byzantine Generals Problem is unsolveable, not unsolved. You can prove that there is no solution.

      Also, I don’t see how it relates to this. Byzantine faults have to do with the possibility of lost messages and an inability to directly observe the behavior of other actors. It doesn’t apply when you’re with someone in-person.

      • Most governance doesn’t happen in person. No one can monitor what their representatives do in real time unless they have the free-time to watch CSPAN all day.

  2. psionl0 says

    I’m not convinced by this “trust” angle.

    Humans are more like pack animals and the strength of the pack is largely related to the strength of the leader of the pack.

    • You don’t think people need to trust each other for society to function? That seems obvious to me. And keep in mind, with pack animals like wolves, the leader is not just some random wolf that rose up to become the leader. Wolf packs are actually wolf families, the leaders (alpha male and alpha female) are the parents; the rest of the wolves are their offspring. A wolf pack is not just some random group of wolves that got together to form a pack. When the offspring get old enough, they run off on their own to try and find a mate and form their own wolf pack.

    • Human societies don’t operate like wolf packs, no matter how much authoritarians want it to be so. There is no evidence for this aside from the armchair philosophizing of people who crave power.

    • There’s a lot more “trust” in society than you’d think. The biggest example I can think of is driving. You trust every other driver to follow the rules of the road, try and avoid collisions, and generally act in a safe, sane fashion, and they’re trusting you to do the same. Sure, some people spit in the face f that, but for the most part, everyone plays along, and most of the time there are no problems. You can’t drive without trusting your fellow humans.

      I definitely don’t believe in the wolf pack thing. If anything, humans tend to rebel against an overly-strong leader. Can’t trust someone who’s so strong, they don’t have to work with other people, ya know?

      • I think you might be equating “strong leader” with “dictator”. It is not about the person but the system. The faces might change but the leader (government) still remains. Even in a wolf pack, leader can be challenged. The main differences between human society and a wolf pack are size and complexity.

        As to whether humans would altruistically obey all laws if they didn’t fear any consequences, that is a highly contentious debate. The need to decide which side of the road to drive on is all too often used to justify highly intrusive levels of government.

        • I have a problem with the phrase “altruistically obey all laws” because the majority of laws are not created to uphold altruism but rather to maintain order. I think it’s fair to say that most people would not follow laws they didn’t like if there were no consequences. There are often laws that are still on the books, still law, but can’t be enforced because they’ve been found unconstitutional. People seem pretty comfortable breaking this type of law. That being said, I think people, even in the absence of government enforcement, have a strong sense of altruism and fair play. For example, people pay their taxes mostly because they want to pay their fair share, not because there’s a high risk of legal consequences.

        • Usually the word “leader” refers to the individual, not to the abstract office they occupy. When one person stops being the leader and a new person becomes the leader, that is commonly described as a change of leadership, not as a “new face on the same leader”.

          But if you were intentionally using “leader” to refer to the office rather than the individual, then your comment “the strength of the pack is largely related to the strength of the leader” is extremely strange. Are you suggesting that different wolf packs have different FORMS of leadership, and that this determines the strength of the pack? That seems highly implausible.

          Also, I don’t understand where the topic of “following laws with no enforcement” came from. “Trust” is context-specific; I can trust you to honor a signed contract without necessarily trusting you to honor a verbal contract. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that’s the point; I suspect the comic is about to argue that government increases trust by punishing cheaters.

      • I don’t think driving is the best example of trust. Safe driving is a form of cooperative behavior, but there’s a ton of self-interest there. If I drive drive on the wrong side, run red lights, tailgate, etc. I’m as likely to damage my own car as others. There are plenty of examples of trust in our society, though. I think the simplest is that we assume people will tell the truth and keep their promises, even in cases when their self-interest would be better served by dishonesty.

  3. Morris_of_Orange says

    Wait I thought the Founding Fathers were influenced by Hobbes’ depiction of the State of Nature so wouldn’t that influence their frame of mind as opposed to what we know now about the State of Nature?

    • A few pages ago, it was pointed out that the founders, who wrote the declaration of independence, and the framers, who wrote the constitution, had different goals and influences. This page is talking about the framers, and I think their opinions probably differed from Hobbes’. I imagine that, like Hobbes, the framers were looking at their own time and place to determine what would work, but that life in the Americas was different from that of Europe, so they created a system very different from those outlined in works like ‘Leviathan.’

  4. Kevin says

    I find trust incredibly powerful on the road. How many times have I seen a car stop at a red light with no vehicles to see in either direction for miles? I do that myself and it kills me. There is no officer watching because if he was there he would be in a car where I could see him, and yet I and millions of motorists each day will wait at a red light with no one coming and not think twice about it.

    And we do need to acknowledge the divide between “The Law” as it is written in the books and “the law” which we follow in our day to day lives. I don’t know about 99% of the law, I am just following the societal norms I am used to following, and that keeps me out of trouble with “The Law” because I live in a free and just society where the laws (more or less) reflect my understanding of what is right and wrong anyway.

  5. David Argall says

    The idea that humans are the exclusive inventors of government is highly suspicious. True enough it requires a high level of intelligence to make it work and to identify times where it may be worth the bother, so most other species won’t have much government, but there is still some government.
    Nor are we eager to co-operate, at least as a goal in its own right. Rather, we see X doing something, and suspect this will result in some goodie we can get part of. We may pitch in and help, or we may stand around and try to grab the whole thing. And various animals quite willing to do the same.

  6. Are you saying that this is the way humans are (an anthropology/sociology type argument) or that this is what the founders/framers thought? I am willing to accept you as an expert in the latter, but I am unaware of reasons to accept you as an expert in the former. And I don’t think your arguments are self-evident. (I also don’t think that a digression into anthropology/sociology to defend the claims would be good for the comic)

  7. Leperflesh says

    While small, “primitive” (perhaps better called “traditional” societal groups functioned on trust, they were also subject to far more violence and death than we are today. Because while they had “weak government” in the form of group tradition, leadership (often but not always by elders, or the most capable/strongest/most charismatic male), enforcement of rules, etc.; they lacked “strong government” in the form of an enforcement mechanism or the ability to control more people than any one individual might know personally. So interpersonal violence within the group might be regulated somewhat, inter-group violence was likely frequent or at least intermittent, and usually brutal and terrifying. People were much more likely to be killed by some neighbor than they are today. Your group might form temporary alliances with one or more neighboring groups, but would also be pulled into feuds against non-allied groups by doing so.

    Moreover, small groups were far more vulnerable to the variations of climate and the risk of disease. A single outbreak could devastate the entire group, and a year or two of drought could kill everyone, because your closest neighbors -e.g., the only other people in the whole world you knew of – were probably wary of your disease and/or suffering from the same drought or famine as you.

    From a perspective of “just getting along” there’s no reason to think these small group societies were particularly fair or egalitarian, either.

    Anthropologists have been working hard at these questions for a couple of centuries, and their thinking has undergone multiple revolutions as they’ve progressively developed and then demolished various theories and ideas as to how primitive societies must have worked, mostly by studying modern-day isolated tribal peoples – which due to the forces that allowed those societies to remain isolated into the modern day is inherently biased (only those living on the most marginal lands, with the most difficult geographic barriers around them, had managed to stay uncontacted into the 20th century… and those factors surely affect the way of life those groups pursue).

    I think it’s a big mistake to dive into an assertive description of what traditional societies were like, without extensive study or at least some care to bibliographic reference.

    • I think it’s a big mistake to dive into an assertive description of what traditional societies were like, without extensive study

      Good thing it’s something I’ve studied extensively since the late 1980s, then. Whew!

      Snark aside, I think you’ll find less to complain about once I actually make my “assertive description.” It is going to be criminally abridged (sadly, I’m only going to touch ever so lightly on it, just enough so that a point I intend to make about the American colonial experience will have some meaningful context). But although it may not be thorough, I’m fairly confident that what I say will at least be accurate.

      As for your own assertions, I can tell that you know this already, but I would caution other readers that observations of present-day hunter-gatherer societies and other “traditional” societies generally do not accurately reflect how similar groups lived in pre-modern times. There are excellent studies on how the realities of the modern world have affected the violence, norms, hierarchies, lifestyles, etc. of such peoples — often to a dramatic extent. And as you point out, present-day isolated societies exist in conditions that most humans in history did not experience, with similar distorting effects. I doubt I’ll be able to dive into such distinctions too much in the comic — it’s already a digression on a digression from a digression at this point, and Leonardo DiCaprio is about to start spinning his little top here if we go any deeper.

      • I appreciate the reply, and look forward to what you have to say. I’ll just summarize by saying I’m dismayed by what appears to be a rose-colored view of past human societies and the broad generalizations being made, and I hope you’ll clear that up soon.

        I also wonder if Goodall would agree with what you said about chimpanzees.

  8. NN1 says

    Humans work well in groups, SMALL groups. We form tribes and do what we can to help our tribe. We need some way to identify an “us” and are not necessarily all that friendly when interacting with a “them.” More structured government is necessary as groups grow larger. Hurting “them” isn’t a problem if it helps “us.” Primitive tribes might have lived harmoniously internally, but that trust doesn’t necessarily extend to other tribes, especially if their is any competition for resources.

    • I suspect that what the Author will shortly propose is that Americans are unique that way…. based on our unique heritage and colonial experience, we actually trust random strangers who make the effort to look and talk like us, MORE than we trust our own regional government…

      On the theory that random strangers with the same clothing and accent are probably more likely to be distant members of own ‘tribe’ than our own government is…

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